Classics Club

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Book Review

Power and gloryIn what many experts consider Graham Greene’s masterpiece, a human drama is played out against a background of opposing idealogies.

The Power and the Glory chronicles the struggle by a Catholic priest to evade capture in a country which has outlawed his religion and forced his fellow priests to either renounce their vows or to face execution. Greene pits the fugitive against the forces of law epitomised by a young lieutenant of high principles and a strong commitment to eradicating Mexico of all vestiges of the Catholic faith.

Hunter and quarry circle each other through poor, remote villages and on bleak mountains, encountering desperation and fear among a population who yearn for the consolation of prayer even though they are afraid of the consequences of harbouring a wanted man.

Each time the priest makes a move that will take him across the mountains and into the safety of a neighbouring state, someone in a village or a fellow traveller calls on him for pastoral succour. He goes to their aid knowing that every day he delays his departure, he risks capture and death.

This nameless priest is no saintly figure however. Greene’s protagonist is a flawed character; a  drunk, a coward and a lecher. He prefers alcohol to prayer and has secretly fathered a child.  In one of the key scenes in the novel, when the priest is taken to prison for possessing forbidden spirits, he admits that he craves drink more desperately than he needs God.

Yet though acutely aware of his unworthiness, he still cannot abandon those who need him.

He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind; somewhere they accumulated in secret — the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.

His antagonist, the nameless police lieutenant, despises the Catholic church. His revulsion dates from his childhood experience of priests who paid more attention to their own comforts than to the needs of the poor. For him, the Church is a dangerous tool of oppression and injustice, an agency that simply holds out false hope of a better life in the hereafter rather than giving practical help in the here and now.

He is on a mission to remove poverty, superstition and corruption from the lives of ordinary Mexican people and if necessary, he is ready to kill to achieve his desired utopia. The Church is simply the first obstacle that has to be eliminated.

The pair seem to hold diametrically different views of the world and yet Greene shows in the course of three encounters between the men, that there are in fact similarities between them. They both have a vision of a world with “no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger” though they differ about when and how this vision is to be achieved.

If by the end of the novel, the lieutenant’s idealism is not reconciled entirely with the priest’s disillusioned materialism, reach a kind of qualified understanding of each other and recognise their mutual moral worth.

The Verdict

A powerful and intense novel which poses questions about faith and devotion, about religious and Marxist ideologies. Greene seems to side with the Church but his endorsement of the Catholic world view is not crystal clear which is one reason why The Power and the Glory was put on the Vatican’s blacklist when it was published. In 2005 The Power and the Glory was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923. It’s an accolade that is richly deserved. 


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Book Review

  • I loved this novel when I read it–one of my favorite Greenes. It was tempting to reread it for the 1940 club, but I won’t. But it was fun to remind myself via your review.

    • I read it first while at university but we were being rushed through the reading list so much I really didn’t get time to savour it then. A re-read reminded me of how powerful a novel it is. My favourite Greene however remains The Heart of the Matter

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  • Great review! I was struck by the similarities between the Lieutenant and the priest. The novel also felt very timely.

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  • Canad-annie

    I just finished The P&G – the first of seven Greenes I’ll be reading for a seminar. I marvelled at the brilliance of his descriptions and many other features of his writing, but I had a problem with the narrator’s ironic tone. I felt it distanced me from the characters, evoking an appreciation of their dilemmas which was academic rather than empathetic. Possibly this was the desired result, but it got tiresome at times. Anyway, thanks for your review. Interesting site!

    • I didn’t detect irony in a big way myself Annie but if you did then I can understand how it would distance you. Try heart of the matter for an even better book, at least in my opinion.

  • Wonderful review. I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of this particular Greene novel, having only heard the title. I will have to add this to my list.

    • Hope you get to read it some time Candiss. It starts rather slowly but worth sticking with it

  • I read a different Graham Greene novel last year who’s title is eluding me, but I really love his commentary on Catholicism and his struggle with it. You can tell he’s a man of faith, but he’s constantly questioning and challenging his beliefs. I find that very satisfying and honest, particularly because I’m almost entirely non-religious myself.

    • Might it have been Brighton Rock or Heart of the Matter – those two, together with Power and the Glory are considered his most ‘Catholic’ novels. Karen Heenan-Davies


  • Great review. I loved this one – even dissecting it at school didn’t manage to destroy it. But for me the most powerful of all Greene’s books is ‘The Heart of the Matter’ – up there in my all-time greats list.

  • I ‘did’ Greene as part of my undergraduate work and read way beyond our set texts (“Brighton Rock’ and ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ but for some reason this wasn’t one of the books I picked up. Why I haven’t gone back to it I can’t imagine because I loved Greene’s writing and certainly wasn’t put off by having to study him as can so often happen. The only way I am likely to read this this year is if I put it onto one of my reading group lists but I think I might just do that. It clearly doesn’t deserve to go unread.

    • Greene was on our syllabus too so I did read Power and Glory but it all was a blur because it was in the month just before finals. I’m enjoying re-awakening my interest now. it would be a good reading group book


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